China’s Challenges

There’s an intriguing post at China Letter that tries to put into perspective just how mammoth China’s socio-economic challenges are. I especially admire Stephen’s ability to clarify the issues using examples and comparisons.

To the uninitiated statistics in China are mind boggling. One hears figures and attempts to relate them in some orderly way to known things. China’s population at the end of 2003 was estimated at 1.29 billion people, 21% of the population of the whole world. 64 times the size of Australia (20m) 21 times the size of Great Britain (60m) and 4 times the size of the United States (290m). It is estimated it will grow to 1.448 million by 2020 and 1.6 billion by mid century.

China’s population over the age of 16 will increase by the staggering number of 5.5 million people annually for the next twenty years, a number many times the size of most large cities. What does it take to provide an infrastructure and an economy to absorb and support a new State of Victoria, Australia (4.64m 2001) or Minnesota, USA (5.01m 2002 est), or two Greater Manchesters U.K. (2.48m 2001) every year, year in an year out for the next 20, all working aged people?

And we think we’ve got problems? And that’s just one of many cited in the post. Like the situation in Iraq, China’s challenges seem insurmountable, and yet somehow the world keeps moving along and takes these impossible situations in its stride, and they all get worked out one way or another. It will be intriguing to see how China copes, but given its history of dealing with the impossible, I suspect it will emerge intact and relatively healthy.

The Discussion: 3 Comments

I disagree with your last comment … it seems to me that China has a continual history of regimes being over-whelmed by worsening ecological and demographic difficulties. The Chinese themselves always expressed the dynastic cycle in moral terms, but from a modern point of view, it was exactly this kind of thing that continually brought down dynasties and threw China into chaos.

Take the Qing Dynasty for example. Personally I would argue that matters such as the Opium Wars etc. were mere diseases of the skin. Unpleasant, ugly, and shameful, but ultimately not life threatening. The things that really brought the dynasty down were a) population pressure b) loss of top soil/declining agricultural fertility levels and c) an inability to adapt to changing circumstances due to over-reverence of the past.

So far the current regime as managed to avoid much of problem c) but that’s normal in the earlier years of a dynasty when the government remains dynamic and flexible. But soon enough talented rulers get replaced by time-servers and non-entitites who basically just carry on the pattern laid down by predecessors. Jiang and Hu fit this category pretty neatly I think. As long as they are not faced with a situation that requires anything more than incremental reform, they’ll be fine. If anything visionary is called for (such as a major attitude shift about the value of democracy in China) there isn’t a chance in hell of it getting done.

This historical analogy gives China a good deal of time yet before it really gets into the worst problems of dynastic decline … I’d say that they’re just about at the top point now. But as the wheel turns, the cycle will take them back down again as inevitably as the fall of more than 20 previous dynasties.

I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering the question of whether China is still within the old cycle, or whether this new age is something altogether different. It seems to me that Chinese people mostly don’t even consider any other possibility except the second one. There’s a presumption that things will just keep getting better and China will ultimately becomea fully developed and prosperous country. You’ll know that the cycle has turned when people start considering the first possibility. And… what’s my conclusion? I’d like to say that this is a new age … but I just can’t. The current government of China is just too much like the dynasties of old in too many ways. Some of the similarities of behaviour with the previous Qing Dynasty are just too striking. Their responses to challenges are practically identical, and because of that I feel that China is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Is there an answer? I think yes there is. However, I also think that the solution will NOT be adopted. The answer is democracy. Not because of anything to do with people having a right to choose their government, or human rights, or any of the usual arguments about why China should become more democratic … but because it is the key to breaking the dynastic cycle. One of the common features of all dynasties has been a complete lack of any means for a smooth transition of power. When a ruling house falls, it must be in blood and chaos. It also means that there is usually a terrible power vacuum in the mess than follows, and China goes through decades of suffering while the ruling dynasty falls, before some other regime succeeds in asserting itself. Democracy allows for one government to fall and a new one to arise, while protecting the institutions and stability of the state. It is the Communist Party’s unwillingness to ever agree to ceding power that dooms China. There will be no democratisation of China under Hu or any of his successors, and anyone who thinks otherwise is living in a dream world. Pretty much all Chinese acknowledge that there is no real alternative to the Party now … and its fall would lead to chaos. I think they’re right. The problem is, one day at some unpredictable point in the future, the Party will fall. The only questions are a) when and b) how. I think it will take decades of preparation to prepare China for an effective democracy … and without a visionary and clear programme that will lead to it, it won’t happen. However, I predict that the Party will act in the same way the Qing Dynasty acted. Finally, in the last decade of their rule, when it was already too late, they bowed to internal demands for the introduction of a constitution, to turn China into a constitutional monarchy. They waited far too long, and gave far too little, and by that time their half-hearted reforms only led to a hastening of their downfall.

Occasionally within a dynasty you had a Restoration. This was a period where the decline was reversed, and a dynamic ruler emerged to take the lead again. However, I don’t think this it a possibility with the current system, because their method of selection for the Presidency. They have a strong memory of what can happen to the ruling class if they allow a strong man to come to power. Selection by semi-adoption and committee agreement ensures that political mediocrities will always sit on the throne.

So … can China succeed and break the pattern of the past? Yes, I think it can. Will it? No, I don’t think it will.

This turned into a mini-essay didn’t it? Oh well …

May 25, 2004 @ 12:41 am | Comment

I’d say you’re absolutely correct — the current regime, despite a lot of hot air, is not the Next Big Thing but more of the same. Better in some ways, worse in others. But I don’t think they’ll let the country spin out of control.

When I said I think China will “emerge intact and relatively healthy,” I was alluding to the remarkable fact that against truly insurmountable odds China has kept going, far longer than any other country on the planet. Somehow they’ve managed to deal with staggering population growth, even worse than what’s predicted to come. I can’t say they dealt with their challenges through admirable means — sometimes (usually? always?) it’s been through drastic and terrible policies (like one-child) or ruthless repression. But they still kept going, huge mistakes and disasters (like the devastation to the environment) notwithstanding.

I am all for democracy, as you know, and believe it should come sooner rather than later. But in this particular context of China’s immense socio-economic challenges, I’m not sure how democracy would be the answer. Especially considering that, at least at first, implementing a functional democracy will be yet one more huge challenge to add to the list.

A bit off-topic but not really: I hope you read the recent article in the IHT by Wei-Wei Zhang ( urging continued caution and a slow approach to political change in China. It seems to think the CCP is well equipped to deal with the huge challenges. Parts of it make sense, but other parts bothered the hell out of me:

. A new consensus seems to be emerging within the Chinese leadership, headed by President Hu Jingtao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, that there should be a more substantial political reform to limit the power of bureaucrats, promote the rule of law and make the state more transparent and accountable to the people, eventually with more intra-party democracy and increased legal protection of individual rights vis-à-vis the state. A strong state is likely to be maintained, however, to ensure overall political and macroeconomic stability.

“A strong state” is a euphemism for an authoritarian semi-police state. The piece cuts the CCP way too much slack but it’s worth a look.

May 25, 2004 @ 10:23 am | Comment

I’m doing a China book project for my geography class and if any of you have information on their future challenges or challenges from the past please e-mail me or post another comment Thanks~!!!

April 3, 2005 @ 1:16 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.